07/09/2016 - 11:26

Linkforce, Curtin play numbers game

07/09/2016 - 11:26

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Perth-based contractor Linkforce Engineering is aiming to gain a competitive edge through a successful partnership with maths specialists at Curtin University.

Linkforce, Curtin play numbers game
RESULTS: Curtin University’s Ryan Loxton (second from left) with Linkforce Engineering’s Ian Whitehouse (left), Luke Herbert, and Shane Harris-Walker. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Perth-based contractor Linkforce Engineering is aiming to gain a competitive edge through a successful partnership with maths specialists at Curtin University.

Contracting firms such as Linkforce Engineering are sometimes derided for the menial nature of their work, so it might raise a few eyebrows when competitors see the results of its partnership with Curtin University.

The tie-up has resulted in the development of unique mathematical algorithms to help Linkforce schedule maintenance activities in mine plant shutdowns.

Initial testing has revealed the algorithms produced schedules that were 10 per cent shorter on average than schedules produced by people, which translated into a downtime saving of between seven and eight hours on a typical shutdown.

“A lot of people underestimate what we do,” managing director Luke Herbert told Business News.

Former Rio Tinto executive Denise Goldsworthy played a key role in brokering the Linkforce-Curtin partnership through her consulting firm, Alternate Futures.

One of her objectives is to build links between the business sector and universities.

Ms Goldsworthy helped Mr Herbert navigate the university maze, connecting him two years ago with Curtin’s department of mathematics and statistics.

“It was a really interesting experience for us dealing with academics,” Mr Herbert said.

“It wasn’t without its challenges, I can assure you.”

He believes Curtin also benefited from partnering with a firm like Linkforce, which did not have a big budget and was very focused on outcomes.

Linkforce’s core business is shutdown maintenance – the nine-year-old firm employs up to 1,500 people, working primarily on iron ore mines in the Pilbara.

The perennial challenge it faces is scheduling maintenance shutdowns so that the work can be completed safely and reliably, but at a competitive cost and in the minimum possible time.

This is influenced by factors including activity workflow, plant access restrictions, safety regulations, and personnel and equipment availability.

Mr Herbert said the complexity of shutdown maintenance meant historically there had been a lot of waste, and his goal was to use computers to automate the planning process as much as possible.

Curtin senior research fellow Ryan Loxton said scheduling shutdowns was currently a time-consuming manual process, but that could change.

“These algorithms take just seconds to run,” Associate Professor Loxton said.

Mr Herbert said Linkforce built up a substantial in-house team, including project manager Shane Harris-Walker and senior developer Ian Whitehouse, to partner with the university staff.

The Linkforce people were embedded with the Curtin team and used an ‘agile’ project management approach.

Linkforce is currently engaging with clients to get more real data, to support continued development of a professional shutdown planning system.

“It’s very exciting, but there is a long way to go,” Mr Herbert said.

“We’re building the planning system ourselves using the Curtin algorithms and some other contractors, but it’s mostly in-house.”

The intellectual property developed through the research partnership has been assigned to Linkforce subsidiary OneSun, which made a one-off payment to the university.

Mr Herbert said he was intending to use the planning system within Linkforce initially, before licensing the intellectual property to users in other sectors such as oil and gas, shipping and logistics.

“It’s a lot bigger than mining,” he said.

The Linkforce project was the overall winner at last week’s Curtin Commercial Innovation Awards, resulting in $15,000 for its inventors.

Other category winning projects were: iQBuds, specially designed augmented earphones being commercialised by listed company Nuheara; a therapeutic strategy to target cancer stem cells; a training tool for home-based aged care; and a biometric market research laboratory.

The director of Curtin’s Office of IP Commercialisation, Rohan McDougall, said the annual awards event showcased the diversity of research projects at the university and the importance of providing a pathway to commercialisation for researchers.

“The diversity of this year’s finalists demonstrates the unique, commercially relevant project work being undertaken by academics at Curtin,” he said.

“Curtin has a successful history of generating first-to-market products and has a focus on continually improving its engagement with industry.”

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